Padua stared blankly at the creased and faded picture of Rosaria, her mother and companion for most of the 51 years of her life. She recalled with pride how Rosaria became a single mother when her husband died just before Padua was born and how from then on she dedicated every nonworking hour of her life to raising her only child. Except for the years that Padua was away at college and the two years she worked for the factory in Verona, she had lived with her mother in the same apartment they had lived in at the time of Padua’s birth. Now her mother was gone, passed on two months ago, and Padua could not imagine a life without the plump, red haired woman with the smile creases that sprouted across her face whenever she laughed, which was often.
Bereft of hope, she turned the photograph over and looked at the impersonal coordinates (A37-R22-M28), the desultory instructions from the cemetery manager (left at big oak), and chastised herself for taking too long to build up the courage to visit her mother’s grave.
At the grey granite stone with her mother’s name, dates and “Beloved Mother, Always” she swept away the leaves with her bare hands and laid fresh white roses on the ground. It looked like she needed to ask the cemetery manager for a floral ground insert. Padua knelt and started to talk to her mother but quickly degenerated to a sobbing, shaking mess. The sense of loss was complete and the loneliness sapped the energy from her bones.
“Excuse me, sister. May I offer you assistance?”
Padua looked up and into the calm face of a man who stood tall and thin, dressed in an old fashioned priest’s black cassock. He looked to be in his thirties and had a thick, purple scar running from his right eye, down his check, and through his upper lip. The scar was white where the thin, red lip had fused back together. The priest smiled down at her and held out his hand. She took it and let him help her to her feet. She allowed him to lead her to a bench beneath the acorn laden oak tree and Padua wondered why she was so comfortable and not at all apprehensive around this strange looking man. When they sat, she blurted, “Oh, Father, it hurts! She is gone and I just want to feel her, to see her, to hear her again.”
The priest patted her wringing hands and watched her with his pale blue eyes as she related the tale of her mother’s lost battle with cancer and then described the bottomless pit the death of that strong woman left in her heart. The priest cooed with understanding and sympathy when she had finished and then he placed a hand on her shoulder and spoke in mellifluous tones.
“Sister, your beloved mother is dead, but she is not gone from this world. She is everywhere.”
He made a sweeping gesture to include everything around them.
“She is part of the infinite tapestry of Creation. She coasts on the wind, she falls to the Earth in rain drops, she inhabits the pollen that spreads through the spring, she is in the honey bee’s nectar, she is in the every miracle that is part of the divine gift of Creation.”
Padua, consoled, felt compelled ask, “Father, what about heaven? Is there no heaven?”
“Of course there is a heaven but it is closer than most people realize. Many look to the firmament, and, yes, paradise is in the stars. But it is also in this acorn, in that leaf, in this bench, in the tears that stream down your face. It is in every child’s smile and in the clink of coins in the beggars cup. So you see, being in Heaven, your mother is as close to you as the countless objects and sounds and smells that surround you every moment.
“This does not mean you will not miss her. You will long for the familiar physical form of your mother, the one you have known for your whole life. You must remember that there is part of her breath in every breath you take, there is part of her blood pumping through your body, there is her laughter in the chitter of the starling and her soft, warm words in the cooing of the dove. Her everything is close to you and all you must do is look and listen and feel her presence.”
Padua understood but was unsure she could bring herself to see so deeply and she told the kind priest this with a trepidation that he would be unable to give her any more advice. He simply smiled and pointed to the sky and then to the drizzling rain drops.
“You see those clouds. They contain the rain. And if you look carefully at the rain, you can see the clouds from whence they came. They both have the other in their nature and their presence. When you go to the ocean, look for clouds and rain drops in the vast sea and you will understand that all Creation is simply a manifestation of everything else. With some practice and faith, you will be able to see your mother in the birds, the trees, the sun, the clouds, in every part of Creation, even yourself. You have your mother in you and around you and you carry her with you wherever you go.”
The priest smiled and added, “In a way your mother is more accessible to you, than ever before. You just need to learn how to see beyond that which you directly perceive. Heaven really is right here, all around you. And your mother is here. I feel her.”
Padua saw selfless kindness and glowing hope in the young priest’s eyes. She felt bad saying, “I will try, Father. But I also feel like my mama needs me to visit, needs company.”
The priest held up a hand.
“Let me help. I spend a lot of time at this cemetery. I will visit your mother’s grave often and I will pray for her and keep her company so that you can connect with her in the wide world.”
Padua threw her arms around the man, tears of relief streamed down her face and when he embraced her, she felt warm and comforted, like sitting in front of a fire on a Winter’s day. The priest leaned back and looked in her eyes, his radiant smile somehow not the least bit diminished by his facial scar. He blessed her with his hands held palm to palm and made a little bow. Then he stood and walked away. She watched the lanky priest pick his way across the cemetery, and she was moved by the way he slowed to gently make the sign of the cross on grave stones as he passed.
After she finished saying good bye to her mother, as she was leaving, Padua realized that she forgot to ask the kind priest for his name. She figured that the cemetery manager must know the priest.
At the office, the manager told her that there was no priest that he knew of who came to visit the dead regularly.
“He had an obvious, purple scar across his face from his eye to his lip. Are you sure -”
The cemetery manger exclaimed, “Madre di Dio!”
Then he crossed himself and sucked in air in an awestruck rush. He lead Padua to a far corner of the cemetery were the grave stones were pockmarked by time and weather. He stopped before a stained marble headstone with crumbling edges and faded etching that read, “Monsignor Bonifacio della Cicatrice 1817 - 1849”
The caretaker pointed to the stone and said, “We call him ‘The Scarred Priest’. He was killed rescuing a woman who was being assaulted by some highwaymen. He fought off three men long enough for the woman to escape. It is said that he was blessed with the ability to console the bereaved. I think that today you call these people grief counselors. He was a 17th century grief counselor, the first, most likely.”
Padua leaned closer to look at a sepia daguerreotype photo beneath a bubble of glass affixed to the top of the head stone. It was faded and the glass was scratched, but she could just make out the face of a man in his thirties, dressed in black, and with a distinctive scar running from his right eye through his upper lip.